Ciao Italia Blog Exclusive: Easter Bread Egg-cellence

April 8, 2009

A few days before Easter I start thinking about what I want to give my friends and neighbors as a little token of the holiday.

One year I decorated cut-out sugar cookies in the shape of bunnies, ducks, and eggs. It took all day. One year I made miniature pound cakes. Last year I shared chocolate macaroon cookies.

This year I decided to give little braided Easter breads using an antique recipe from home. I remember my mother and grandmothers making huge tubs of sweet dough that they flavored with lots of orange zest, orange juice, and some secret ingredient that reminded me of orange perfume. I never asked what it was.

They would lop off pieces of dough, roll them into long ropes, then twist a couple of ropes together and braid them like pigtails.

But the best part was coloring the eggs that nested in the middle of each bread. That’s where I came in. Mom refused to use artificial coloring of any kind so she used things like beet juice for red color, blueberries for blue, and dandelion flowers for yellow. That’s where I thought maybe she went just a bit too far.

Once she had the shades she wanted, I remember her putting white vinegar in each coloring bowl to set the color of the liquid she had extracted from the beets, blueberries, and dandelions. I put the hard boiled eggs in the liquid and turned them around every now and then to get them to the right color.

The breads were baked with the colored eggs until the dough was a nice golden brown. When they were cool, Mom wrapped them in cellophane paper and tied them with purple bows – the color of royalty – put them carefully in a large basket and sent me to deliver them like Little Red Riding Hood.

While I confess to using natural food color dyes you can buy, I have pretty much kept the recipe in tact and when those breads are baking, their familiar smell takes me right back to Mom’s kitchen and her Easter eggscapade. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist one more Easter pun!)

Mom’s Braided Easter Bread
Makes 4 small braids

1 package active dry yeast (0.25 ounce)
1/4 cup warm (110º to 115ºF) water
1/2 cup warm buttermilk (110º to 115ºF)
4 large eggs, at room temperature plus 4 colored hard boiled eggs
Juice of one large orange
2 tablespoons grated orange zest
1 teaspoon fior di Sicilia orange flower water
4 1/2 to 5 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
Colored sugar for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 375F degrees.

In a medium bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the water and mix with a spoon until the yeast dissolves. Let the mixture proof for about 5 minutes. Small clusters of chalky-looking bubbles should appear on the surface. Stir in the buttermilk. With a fork, beat in 3 of the eggs one at a time. Add the orange juice, zest, and orange flavored water. Set the mixture aside.

Reserve one egg for brushing on top of the braids.

To make the dough in a bowl, mix together 4 1/2 cups of the flour, the sugar, and salt. Break up the butter over the dry ingredients and work it in with your hands until a crumbly mixture is obtained. Add the yeast mixture and mix with your hands until a ball of dough is formed. Add additional flour if necessary to obtain a dough that is soft but not too sticky. (You can also make the dough in a stand mixer.)

Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead it for 3 to 4 minutes, until a smooth ball of dough forms. Let the dough rest on the work surface for 10 minutes, covered with a towel or inverted bowl. Knead the dough again for 5 minutes, until smooth and no longer sticky.

Lightly spray a large bowl with cooking oil spray or lightly coat with butter. Gather up the dough, place it in the bowl, and turn to coat. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let the dough rise until doubled in size, 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

EasterBread2When the dough has risen to approximately two times its size, punch it down and transfer it to a lightly floured work surface. Knead the dough with your hands until it’s soft and smooth and not sticky.

Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a 16-inch long rope. Use two ropes to make a braid and bring the two ends together to form a circle. Place the braids as you make them on parchment lined baking sheets, spacing them to allow for them to rise. I place two on a sheet.

Place a colored egg in the center of each braid and brush each one with the beaten egg. Sprinkle the tops with colored sugar. Cover and allow to rise for 20 minutes.

Bake for 30-40 minutes until golden brown; cool on wire racks

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